Creating a healthy level of self-control is a challenge for almost everyone.
Many people wish they had been taught how to have more self-control as a child; and parents often want their children to have this skill, but aren’t exactly sure how to teach it.
When I was a full-time nanny, the lady I worked for introduced me to a study, that is now known as The Marshmallow Test, which tested four-year-olds’ levels of self-control. I was intrigued and later decided to read the book written by the head researcher to learn more details of the study and what was learned from it.
If you haven’t heard of it before, here is the concept in a nutshell: a researcher took a young child (3-5 years of age) into a room and sat them at a table. The child would pick out a treat, any treat that the child wanted (according to Walter Mischel, the psychologist and researcher behind the study, marshmallows were just one of the options).
The child was then told that the adult was going to have to leave the room to “do some work” and would be back shortly. The child was told that they may eat this one treat any time during the experiment, but if they waited until the adult came back, they would get TWO of the treats!
Through interesting follow-up research, the professors have found that the amount of time that the child waited to eat the marshmallow directly correlated to the amount of self-control they exhibited for the rest of their life.
From how healthy they would choose to eat, to how much money they would save for retirement; the self-regulation skills they had at their disposal and their use of them at this young age directly affected the types of choices they made for the rest of their lives.
This told me that I needed to do everything I could to teach self-control at a very young age. No pressure, right?!
So I decided to teach my kids self-discipline skills daily, whenever the opportunity arose.
Additional Reasons I Teach My Kids Self-Control:
In addition to what I learned by reading The Marshmallow Test, I also had a few other reasons I wanted them to learn self-control:
1) My Life Will Be Easier
When children have good self-regulation skills, they are able to obey without a fuss even when they don’t like the answer they are given. While this may seem a little selfish, I think any relationship is best when both parties are happy in the relationship.
My children may think they would be happy if I didn’t teach them these things; but I can assure you that I most definitely would not be.
2) They Will Learn More Effective Communication Strategies
Although it is common for children to begin to communicate the fact that they are frustrated by screaming or throwing themselves on the nearest object like a Disney Princess, that isn’t a good communication strategy.
I’m teaching my kids to tell me when they are frustrated so we can discuss what to do about it in a calm, constructive manner… and you can’t do that if you don’t have good self-control.
3) Their Life Will Be Simpler Now And Later
Sometimes self-discipline gets a bad rap. It can seem that if you have strong self-control, you can’t have as much fun and you don’t get to be impulsive any more.
But what isn’t often realized is how much simpler it can make your life.
If a parent tells a child not to touch something and they don’t, everyone is happy. If a parent asks a child to do something for them and the child does it without talking back, no one is upset by that.
These behaviors turn into things in the future like taking a deep breath and counting to 10 (or a million if necessary) before saying something or doing something that will damage a relationship forever.
Self-control will also keep you from losing your job because you mouthed off to your boss when you had something oh-so-clever to say.
With all these reasons in mind, I set out to gather strategies that would help me teach my children self-control. Here are nine of the strategies I’ve found that continue to help us on this journey:
Nine Strategies for Teaching Self-Control
1) We Make Them Wait
Teaching delayed gratification isn’t as difficult to teach as people might think. It can be as simple as having someone wait.
I practice this with my kids at every meal. I have them help with the final dinner preparations and help with setting the table before we eat. They aren’t snacking or munching while we do this unless we are making sure things are seasoned properly.
Then we all sit at the table. My husband and I make their plates and sit them in front of them, we tell our one-year-old to “wait” when she starts reaching for her food or fussing, then we make our own. Before we start eating we always say a prayer.
Then we begin eating. Together. At the same time.
If you aren’t religious, I’ve heard of families going around the table and saying something they are thankful for, or telling their favorite part of the day, or simply saying “Bon Appétit!”
If there is dessert at the end of the meal, the kids are learning to wait until everyone is served and whoever made the dessert takes the first bite before they join them.
Waiting extends to other parts of the day as well. We don’t let them interrupt conversations (unless it is an emergency) and we don’t drop what we are doing any time they call our names. If we are in the middle of something, we simply tell them “wait.”
When we are finished, we are happy to help them or watch them do whatever they wanted to show us; but they are learning that waiting is an important part of life.
2) We Tell Them “No”
My girls are used to not getting everything they ask for or want. When they hear the word “No,” it isn’t a surprise, or an invitation to argue or explain their point. It is a final answer.
Do they like it when we say no? Not exactly, they are human. But being told “no” is a part of life and they need to learn to behave properly even when they are told something they don’t like.
If they don’t learn this as a child, they will have an interesting time in the workplace when they have to learn to respect people in authority as adults (just ask anyone in management!)
3) We Change Our Minds
When we tell our children something we are going to do (or not), we always intend to follow through. But sometimes life happens and we aren’t able proceed with our original plans.
We don’t make a big deal about it or go over the top apologizing for it, we usually just say:
“I know I told you that we could (go to the park, make bread, read a certain book before bed….) but we had to change our plans because (it is so windy and rainy the baby won’t be able to play too, I don’t have all the ingredients like I thought we did, it is getting late for that long of a book…). Sometimes life happens and plans need to change. Since we didn’t get to do this now, we can (play a game together and make hot drinks, make bread after we go to the store tomorrow, read a short book tonight and this longer one tomorrow…).”
We are acknowledging they may be disappointed (which is a normal feeling), we are explaining that is a part of life (both to be disappointed and to change plans), and we are giving them an alternative time or activity to do instead.
It is teaching them to deal with disappointments in a respectful and constructive manner.
If they are having a hard time with it, we ask them what they can be thankful for in this situation. We can always think of one or two things and that usually heals the sting of disappointment.
If they choose to be upset about the change of plans by sulking or throwing a fit, we remind them how to properly talk with us about it; and tell them that they will lose the alternative option if they are going to make everyone around them miserable.
4) We Don’t Allow Fits or Tantrums
I know this one can make people uncomfortable to talk about, but in our house, we don’t allow temper tantrums. There are clear consequences if they do decide to throw a fit.
In the summer, we go to the park in the morning, after nap, and sometimes again after dinner. I often joke that we live at the park in the summer.
Consequently, we have clear rules about leaving the park: there are to be no fits when we say it’s time to go home, and they are to say “thank you for bringing me to the park,” when we leave.
If they do decide to throw a fit, be ungrateful, or complain, they don’t get to go the park anymore that day (or the next day if it is in the evening.)
This is all made very clear to them from the time they can communicate on a basic level with us (which has been between one- and one-and-a-half years old for our girls) and they understand their choice and role with it.
It only took one or two times of us following through with this consequence before they realized that it isn’t much fun if they throw a fit or complain.
If your consequence has a directly-related, immediate, consistent, and less than desirable outcome for the child; they reform quite quickly!
5) We Work Before We Play
Understanding that you may want to do something very badly, but that you need to do something else first is a huge step in learning self-discipline.
Our family runs this way and it is a daily reminder when we do our chores before we play.
A little thing like enforcing “before we head outside, we clean up the breakfast dishes” can go a long way toward creating self-regulation skills in your child.
6) We Do Things Differently
From not allowing our girls to use any media aside from Facetiming with family, to being vegan and not eating refined sugar, our family is known for being a little… how shall I put this delicately…
Extreme. Weird. Strict. Unrealistic. Different. (Yes, we have been told all those things!)
None of my girls’ friends do things exactly the same way we do, and that’s just fine with us.
Not only does this teach our girls to deal with peer pressure (yes, it already happens at three!), but it also is an opportunity to practice self-control.
It isn’t easy saying “no” to something that your friends are doing, but I want them to have that skill in their back pocket in case anyone ever wants them to do something dangerous or destructive down the road.
When I was growing up, my family ate differently, watched different things, and went to church on a different day than the side of the family we spent the most time with.
At times it was uncomfortable, but it made me really confident in doing something that I believed in. Even if it wasn’t the popular or cool thing to do.
I think that saying “no” to something that isn’t the best can give them the fortitude to say “no” to more difficult things down the road.
7) We are Intentional About Sharing
We keep our toys to a minimum for a lot of reasons, but increasing their self-control happened to be a side benefit we weren’t even expecting.
Although they both have a couple of special dolls and stuffed animals that are just theirs, the rest of the toys are community property. And we don’t have duplicate toys. This means they have to take turns and share.
Toys are not “mine” or “yours” in our house but are all “ours.”
If one child is playing with something the other wants, they are to say “When you’re done, may I play with it?” Then they are expected to give them the space to enjoy it until they are finished.
It isn’t real life to demand what you want and expect to get it right away. You need to have the self-control not to continue asking or hovering until the other person gets sick of being harassed and gives up.
Along this same line, our toy bin also helps create self-discipline. Since we don’t have a lot of toys, we can fit 50%-75% of their toys (depending on the size) into one Storage Bin. Yes, that’s one 22 Gallon bin for a four-year-old and a one-year-old to share.
The toys can be rotated in and out of the bin as often as they like, as long as they are keeping their rooms tidy when they are done playing.
Sometimes I may make a suggestion about a toy I haven’t seen them playing with it in a while and ask if they would like to trade it for a toy in the bin, but they ultimately get to make the decision.
If they are not putting their toys away, I will tell them that more toys need to go into the bin, but I never choose which toys.
They pick which ones stay out, which ones go in, and which trades are made. This is a practical, hands-on skill to learn about delayed gratification.
It’s amazing to me how much more they enjoy a toy after it has been out of sight for a little while!
8) We Play a Game to Practice
Our kids loves games and I had read that it is a good idea to practice obedience ahead of time in a low-pressure situation instead of waiting until you are in a situation where you need them to obey.
We play a game that is very similar to Simon Says… but Mom and Dad are always Simon.
We send them on errands, tell them to touch furniture, have her stand on one leg, or sing us a song. All they needs to do is exactly what we ask.
Once they master the basic game, we make it even more challenging by asking them to do something that begs a completion… but we call them away from completing it.
For example: We may say, “Go touch the front door.” The child runs toward the front door, but as they are about to get close to it, we will tell them something different such as, “Stop!” or “Come!”
It takes quite a bit of self-regulation to stop when you are in the middle of something you think you want to do and change course.
In our family, our practice time is something the kids looks forward to. Usually Ross and I are ready to be done long before they are. We will continue to hear, “What can I do next?” until we tell them we are done with the game.
If you make practicing fun by praising them every time they do what you ask them to properly and give hugs every time they come running when you call, they will want to please you in real life obedience too.
9) We Do Our Best to Model Self-Control
Your children will feel the hypocrisy if you are yelling at them to have more self-control while you clearly are exhibiting none yourself.
I’m not saying we always accomplish this perfectly… we definitely get frustrated from time to time… but we are conscious about how much our example will affect our children.
How do we react when things don’t go our way? Does the weather get us down, or do we hike in the rain? Do we get grumpy if dinner is late, or do we just jump in to help make supper with a cheerful attitude? When our kids are misbehaving, do we let them affect our mood, or are we calm but firm in our decisions? Are we snacking as we get dinner ready even though we told the kids to wait, or do we all sit down together before we start eating?
Children are amazingly perceptive and way more intuitive than we give them credit for. Remember that you are always being watched; which is slightly terrifying, but also incredibly motivating!
If you are just starting the process of teaching your children self-control, pick one of the strategies to start with. Once you and your child get used to it, try adding another and another until your child is showing self-control consistently.
For more ideas on how to teach your children self-control, check out my post Why Every Parent Should Read Bringing Up Bébé: 10 Lessons I Learned From the French.
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